For Henry Hudson, finding a shortcut meant taking the long way.
The English explorer’s search for a quickie route to the Orient took him on a zigzagging quest thousands of miles long. Hudson made four journeys between 1607 to 1610, but it was his third voyage, for the Dutch East India Company on the Half Moon in 1609, that is the most famous. It resulted in the discovery of the river named for him. And, not coincidentally, it has been four hundred years since this historic journey, which transformed the known limits of the New World and eventually lead to the Dutch settlement known as New Netherland.
In the early 17th century, popular belief had it that in summer, you could sail straight over the North Pole and down the other side because the ice would melt. On his first two journeys — when he was sailing for the Muscovy Company, an English trading company — Hudson ruled out that theory: solid pack ice prevented any conceivable passage. Afterward, the Muscovy Company cut off his funding, which is why he sought out a gig with the Dutch.
Much of what we know about Hudson is speculation; English family records were most likely lost in the London fire of 1666. “To me, Hudson was a working-class guy, a captain looking for a job,” says Corey Sandler, author of Henry Hudson: Dreams and Obsession. “We can’t say he was educated, but he was certainly knowledgeable enough to navigate a ship. Captains don’t spring forth fully born. Some people believe he sailed on a number of military expeditions.”
He must have had a pretty good reputation: When the Dutch sent him to find a passage to the East, they equipped him with the most advanced technology of the day. The Half Moon was built specifically for discovery and equipped with state-of-the-art navigational instruments. Hudson set out with his crew of about 20 and went northeast, as his contract specified, but when he hit pack ice off the Russian coast, he swung back across the Atlantic instead of returning to Amsterdam — which wasn’t part of the original deal. Historians have implied that Hudson was breaking his contract to look for a northwest passage instead of one to the northeast. Most likely a representative, or supercargo, of the East India Company would have been on the ship to okay the decision.
Whatever actually prompted the turnaround to the New World — Hudson eventually landed around Maine, swung as far south as Chesapeake Bay, then headed back north — we do have excellent records of the Half Moon’s journey up the Hudson, thanks to the detailed journal of first mate Robert Juet.
Westward ho: A map of the 1609 voyage
Juet gives the play by play. Before entering the Hudson on September 3, the crew stopped in present-day New Jersey. The reception by natives was not friendly: A crewman was killed by an arrow through the neck. Things got better in New York. When they entered the Hudson a few days later and headed upriver, natives gifted them with tobacco. Juet called them “very loving people.”
The river journey had its moments. Most likely in the area between Coxsackie and Albany, the ship encountered more friendly natives, and even invited a chief onboard and got him very drunk. (Juet implies they were testing his motives.) In another incident, one of the natives climbed through a cabin window and tried to steal a pillow and two shirts (he was killed).
What were they thinking? “I’m sure the crew was much happier to be in warm weather, calm seas, and a beautiful place like the Hudson than fighting the Bering Sea,” says Sandler. “But I would guess that Hudson was miserable because he did not accomplish his goal.”
Just imagine his emotional roller-coaster when he sees the river get broader around the Tappan Zee Bridge area — Asia would have to be just ahead — then narrow around Bear Mountain and bend at West Point, where it almost looks like it’s coming to an end. Then, the river continues with no more noteworthy broadening and eventually gets shallow. The ship turned around between Coxsackie and Albany in mid-September, and returned to the Atlantic by early October.
Every year, the replica ship Half Moon retraces Hudson’s journey upstream from New York Harbor to Albany (and sometimes back down). “We like to approximate where Hudson landed, but in very few locations can we be reasonably precise,” says Capt. Chip Reynolds. The 100-foot-long floating museum, built in 1989 from 17th-century Dutch ship plans, makes stops up and down the river so visitors can board and tour the vessel — which is so historically accurate it was used in Terrence Malick’s film The New World.
“It is a plank-by-plank replica,” says Tom Wysmuth of the New Netherland Museum, which owns and operates the Half Moon. There are some contemporary features, however. Sail ropes are made of synthetic fiber instead of hemp. There is an engine and, as required by the Coast Guard, radar. The area below decks is similar to the original four-foot-high space, but includes a small well so visitors can view the orlop (lower) deck without bumping their heads. The crew steers with a whipstaff, a giant stick that turns the rudder (the ship’s wheel hadn’t been invented) and flies the flags of the Dutch East India Company, the City of Amsterdam, the South Province of Holland (a flag of the Dutch royal family), and the United Provinces of Holland, as Hudson would have done.
For Capt. Reynolds, being at the helm of the replica has given him a new perspective on Hudson. “Here is this guy who is driven to explore. Every year I sail this ship, and it is a grueling process for me to recruit and equip a crew — and I’ve got telephones, fax, and E-mail. When we do our provisions, we can go to Price Chopper, and we’ve got trucks and cars for support. Hudson had none of that. But year after year he made some of the most extraordinary voyages of exploration of all time.”
Today, the Half Moon cannot take passengers, but offers volunteer crew experiences ranging from basic ship maintenance to galley duty. The ship also takes middle-schoolers on voyages that retrace Hudson’s journey. Students conduct scientific experiments that recreate the day-to-day navigational work done on the original vessel. In fact, the ship was in New York Harbor on the morning of September 11, 2001, about to make such a journey. Reynolds proudly recorded in his journal: “Our students took the initiative… They responded immediately, competently and maturely, working as a team to weigh anchor, get the ship underway, and organize the vessel for conditions that we could not predict.” Albeit shaken, they made the nine-hour voyage back to home port in Verplanck safely and expertly.
“Henry Hudson functioned as a natural scientist,” says Reynolds. “Every 30 minutes he was taking a vast measurement of the world around him, tracking the progress of the trip. His crew looked for repeatable patterns and kept detailed logs, both for their own preservation and for the expansion of commerce. It is not something that people think of when they think of Hudson. They think of him as blundering on. But he sailed very precisely to every location. Seventeenth-century explorers on ships were really on the cutting edge. They were the top practitioners of an empirical approach to knowledge.”
Though he didn’t find the passage to the Orient in 1609, Hudson’s description of the beauty and bounty of the land — including an abundance of corn, grapes, and salmon — did lead to Dutch settlement here.
Only Hudson’s reputation profited, which was why he had to go out again in 1610 to look for that passage one more time. Things didn’t turn out so well. In a mutiny (in which Juet, of all people, was involved), Hudson was set adrift on a boat in the Canadian Arctic with his son, the ship’s carpenter, and six crew members incapacitated with scurvy. “There is a Canadian painting of Hudson that shows him as a dejected, despondent loser, his son curled up in his lap,” says Reynolds. “But if you read the trial account of the people who came back to England after the mutiny, the last recorded image of Hudson is that he had set all the boat’s sails. He had not given up.” ♦
Visit www.halfmoon.mus.ny.us for updates
♦ Memorial Day weekend (May 23-25)
Docked in Poughkeepsie for festival and open for public tours (not confirmed)
♦ June 6
River Day, New York Harbor
♦ July 25-26
Docked in Hudson for festival and open for public tours
♦ August 22-23
Docked in Staten Island for festival and open for public tours
♦ September 14
Harbor Day, New York Harbor
♦ September 26
Docked in Albany for festival and open for public tours
♦ Last two weeks in October
Docked in Yonkers and open for public tours